Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Difference Between Right and Legal.

One of the first things you learn in law school is the difference between law and morality.

I’ll pause for a moment as you fill in your own punch-line.

The simple point is, things aren’t necessarily right because they’re legal and they’re not necessarily wrong because they’re illegal. The second of those two statement is the more complicated one, and doesn’t really concern us today. We’ll stick to the first concept.

Just because something is legal, that doesn’t make it right.

This comes up in part because of my recent comments about the Social Security scam that is being used to promote domestic partner/civil union legislation in Illinois. A similar arrangement is already law in California. The argument has been made, and acknowledged by me, that if the practice is legal, as it apparently is, then there should be no stigma attached to people taking advantage of it.

Maybe, but that doesn’t make it right.

If this concept still seems a bit hazy, here are some other illustrations, all helpfully provided by that same cast of characters.

One of the advocates for the civil unions scheme is my State Senator, Heather Steans. Ms. Steans got her job through some shenanigans involving the carefully-timed resignation of her predecessor, Carol Ronen. Though dubious ethically, it was all legal.

In the Senate, Ronen was Governor Rod Blagojevich's floor leader. Earlier this year, he hired her as a $120,000-a-year senior advisor. She resigned eight weeks later, ostensibly to volunteer in Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, although that organization has yet to acknowledge her presence.

In doing all this, Ronen “earned” a state pension whose amount is based on her final salary, so her yearly pension (Ronen is 63-years-old) will be $102,000. That is $38,000 more than she would have gotten as a retired senator. Her old salary as a senator was $75,000 a year. How many hard-working Americans get to retire on a pension that is higher than their salary?

In the military, it is customary for lifers to get one last promotion just before they retire, so their pension will be figured at the higher pay grade. The difference is that everyone there is treated the same. Everyone gets the extra bump before they retire. What Ronen got was a special reward for a loyal insider, available to only a select few. That's the sin of the thing.

Governor Blagojevich, who because he says nothing with a straight face can effectively say anything with one, claims he didn’t know about Ronen's scam (there’s that word again) until he read about it in the newspapers.

Pension scammers like Ronen are entitled to say they haven’t done anything illegal, but I contend they can’t say they haven’t done anything wrong. Here is how one state legislator characterized this pension enhancement practice: "It's an outrage. It's not the way people expect government to run. It's not the way government should run." Who said that? Senator Carol Ronen, in 2003, when the outgoing Republican administration was pulling the same stunt. She predicted that the incoming Blagojevich administration would set a higher standard.

Is the practice actually legal? Quite possibly not, technically, but it is effectively legal since there is no way to prove the conspiracy to defraud that would be necessary to call it illegal. That it is wrong should be clear to anyone with even a passably-functioning moral compass, but those are pretty rare in Springfield.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

A Gift that Keeps on Giving.

Former Illinois Governor George Ryan and his co-defendant, Larry Warner, lost another one today, their last one, to the U.S. Supreme Court, which without comment declined to hear their appeal. (They do that a lot.) The only way Ryan and Warner can get out now is a presidential pardon, and George H. surely no longer has that kind of juice with George W.

The imprisonment of George Ryan is a gift that keeps on giving. Is it wrong to gloat about the incarceration of a 74-year-old man who may live all or most of his remaining years behind bars? One can’t help but feel a little pity on a purely human basis, but it passes. To those who say he did nothing that dozens of other government officials have not also done and are still doing, I say lock them all up, every one, and if the prisons get too full of them, we’ll build more.

When people steal from me, I take it personally. When they do it repeatedly, right under my nose, it really pisses me off. They should rot in hell for what they did to me, to all of us.

George Ryan liked the finer things in life; a thick steak, a fat cigar, and a sporting roll of the dice. He especially liked never picking up a tab. But he made sure his buddies got their tickets punched in other ways. In Illinois there are no Republicans or Democrats, only Kleptocrats.

U.S. Atty. Patrick J. Fitzgerald put an apple in the pig’s mouth, saying in a statement, "Mr. Ryan has exhausted every legal avenue and argument afforded him, but the verdict stands that he was guilty of corrupting the highest office in the state."

Ryan and Warner were convicted in April of 2006. Ryan has been in the Federal cooler in Oxford, Wisconsin, since November but recently was transferred to Terra Haute, Indiana, for medical reasons. He’s not supposed to get out until 2013. Warner has been in Colorado. He is in until 2010.

Friday, May 23, 2008

The Spindle, 1989-2008.



Score one for the Philistines.

Three weeks ago tonight, The Spindle was demolished.

"The Spindle" was a sculpture by Dustin Shuler. It was erected in 1989 in the middle of the Berwyn Plaza Shopping Center parking lot. The piece consisted of eight actual, full size automobiles seemingly stacked on a tall, silver spindle.

Last July it was reported that the shopping center, which is located just east of the intersection of Harlem and Cermak in Berwyn, Illinois, was showing its age and wanted to revitalize itself, in part by removing the sculpture and developing that space commercially. Their stated intention then was to scrap the work, but they made the announcement and waited almost a year to see if anyone would come forward to save it.

No one did.

Last summer, I drove down there and took a few pictures. Click here to watch the slide show. (The slide show will open in a new window. When you are finished watching, just close the window to return here.)

Perhaps the kiss of death for it as a serious work of art is the fact that it was best known for a brief appearance in the movie "Wayne's World."

Where to Shop For and Drink Bourbon in Chicago.

Because I write about bourbon and live in Chicago, people often ask me where they should go for bourbon when they visit Chicago. Here is my answer.

For package stores, there are really only two places you need to know. One is Sam’s. The main store, and the one I usually use, is at 1720 North Marcey Street, in the vicinity of North and Clybourn. They also have a store downtown at Roosevelt and State.

The other major retailer is Binny’s, which has many locations throughout the Chicago area. The location with which I am most familiar, and which I know always has a good bourbon selection, is on the north side at 3000 N. Clark. Their downtown store is the old Zimmermans at 213 W. Grand Ave.

Sam's and Binny's are the best places to go for selection and price.

Among hotel bars downtown, the Hyatt Regency (151 East Wacker Drive) and Hilton (720 South Michigan Avenue) both have good bourbon selections. Probably all of the hotel bars have pretty good selections, but I don't drink in hotel bars very often.

Also downtown The Berghoff is an old German restaurant, at 17 W. Adams. It has a limited bourbon selection but some of my favorites, not the least of which is their own private bottling, a Van Winkle wheater. The bar is beautiful too. It has been called, "perhaps what the bar in heaven looks like." The restaurant proper closed in 2006 but the bar is still open, as is the downstairs café.

In the Loop I also like Miller's Pub (134 S. Wabash Street). The bourbon selection is only so-so (Maker's, Knob Creek and Old Grand-Dad BIB are the best bets), but it's a real bar (and also a pretty good restaurant), little changed in 50 years, cheap for a downtown joint, with convivial and professional drink slingers. It's civilized without being pretentious. For easy reference, it's a few steps south of the Wabash Street entrance to the Palmer House.

Outside the Loop, in the River North area, I'm fond of the Clark Street Ale House (742 N. Clark Street), which has a good selection of beer and whiskey, nice atmosphere, and is easy walking distance to some good blues bars, restaurants, and convenient public transportation. It's an easy way to get a little bit out of the Loop and Michigan Avenue neighborhoods where most visitors stay.

In Lincoln Park, Stanley's is a good choice. It is at the venerable six-corner intersection of Lincoln, Armitage and Sedgwick. I call it "venerable," because there have always been several good, big, popular bars at or very near that intersection. Stanley's has a large, eccentric bourbon collection (Old Heaven Hill BIB on a Chicago back bar?) and a menu of "American Classic" cuisine that is a cut or two above pub grub.

Another Chicago place that pays proper respect to America's native spirit is Twisted Spoke, 501 N. Ogden (at Grand). It's the only place I know of that has Jim Beam on tap. It's also a decent restaurant.

Far and away the best bourbon selection in town is at an unexpected place called Delilah’s, at 2771 N. Lincoln Avenue (just south of Diversey). If you imagine a bourbon bar as looking like an English men’s club, prepare for a shock. Delilah’s is more of a punk rock joint, but they have probably twice as many bourbons on offer as anyone else in town. Any lover of fine drink and serious rock and roll is always welcome.

Delilah's doesn't serve food, but there's a Gino's East pizza right across the street.

All of the above are easily reached from downtown by cab or public transportation.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Promises, Promises.

I don't think much of the infomercial industry.

First, there is the form itself. There is nothing wrong with long-form commercials. A commercial that is long enough for the advertiser to present the product's features and benefits in detail would seem to be an improvement over the 30-second spot. In practice, however, most infomercials take the form of a fake talk show. That's the first strike against them. You won't launch a business relationship with me by trying to deceive me, right out of the box.

But the even bigger problem with infomercials is that every single one of them is directed at people with a handicap, people who just aren't skeptical enough. Look at what infomercials sell: beauty, health, wealth, and a better sex life. Even the kitchen gadgets are touted for their health benefits.

And look at how they're sold. The two most critical words in infomercials are "quick" and "easy." Infomercials sell a promise, not a product. You could argue that all advertising does that, sells the sizzle not the steak. The difference is in whether or not the products actually deliver. When people say to me, "good advertising can sell anything," I counter with, "good advertising call sell anything once." Even that is not entirely true. Most people have good detectors for the claim that seems too good to be true. Most, but not the skepticism-impaired. That's who infomercials target, and their mantra is "quick and easy."

Kevin Trudeau got bagged for this with his weight loss book, but only because he was already under court supervision due to a settlement involving previous scamming. The court looked at the weight management program described in Trudeau's book and ruled that whether it worked or not, it could not truthfully be described as either "quick" or "easy."

The skepticism-impaired are a big market. Trudeau alone spends about $20 million a year on infomercial advertising, according to a report by ABC's John Stossel. Even if his advertising budget is 20 percent of his gross revenue, and nobody spends that much, that would mean his gross is $100 million a year. Believe me, I'm not making that selling books about bourbon.

But what really has me thinking about this are the infomercials and regular commercials (generally on AM radio) touting products that promise quick and easy riches through some kind of investing, whether in securities, real estate, options, or something else, or with "an internet-based business." They sell you a computer program, a book, or some other kind of "system" that is, of course, quick and easy.

No matter how long it is, the commercial will spend very little time telling you what the system does or how it works, and a lot of time telling you how great being rich is. Most people, who are gifted with normal skepticism, see through these blandishments immediately, but apparently there are enough of the skepticism-impaired to support many of these get-rich schemes.

It is possible to loss weight, improve your health, improve your appearance, and increase your wealth. The lie is always in the quick and easy part.

Here is is a little bit about the wealth part.

In the past, I have done work for the Chicago Board Options Exchange (CBOE) and the Options Industry Council (OIC). CBOE invented exchange listed options as a type of financial instrument. There are now several different exchanges where options can be traded and the OIC is their educational arm. They are at OptionsEducation.org.

One of their educational products is a DVD entitled "It’s Good to Have Options," hosted by Terry Savage. I wrote it. I'm not currently on their payroll nor a regular consultant to them, nor do I make any money if you request the DVD. I simply have a lot of respect for the organization.

The DVD is free. Almost everything on the OIC web site is free. They offer terrific, substantive educational materials written by top experts, all at no charge. The exchanges that fund this make money when you trade options, because they charge a fee for each transaction. The more people trade, the more they make. That's why they're happy to give the stuff away. If you want to draw the analogy to casinos giving away free hotel rooms, I won't argue. Casinos don't care if you win or lose. If you're there and playing, they're making money.

What OIC does not do is promise quick and easy riches. What they promise is that the more you learn the more successful you will be. If you're willing to study and learn, and work at it, you can make money trading options, but it's not quick and it's not easy. It's not dauntingly difficult, but it takes time and work. Just like losing weight and improving your health and appearance takes exercise and diet discipline.

I wish there was a way to help people develop more healthy skepticism about the products they see on infomercials. Maybe there's a pill...

Monday, May 19, 2008

Illinois Legislator Promotes Civil Unions as Social Security Scam.

Once again, my representatives to the state legislature are not making me proud.

Greg Harris (D-13th District) is promoting civil union legislation with a unique argument. He is touting it as a way for heterosexual senior citizens to get certain benefits and privileges without jeopardizing their spousal Social Security benefits as they would by remarrying. He isn't calling it a Social Security scam, of course. Here is how he positions it:

While a lot of attention has been focused on how civil unions would benefit same-sex couples, little attention has been given to the largest group of potential beneficiaries of civil unions in Illinois: senior citizens. This week, I along with Senator David Koehler, Senator Heather Steans and a group of seniors held a press conference to highlight these benefits. The fact is that many seniors who are widows or widowers stand to lose their pension or social security benefits if they remarry. However, without legal recognition of their relationship, such as a marriage or civil union, these seniors can be denied the right to visit partners in the hospital, participate in healthcare decision making, and disposition of a deceased loved one’s remains.

(The underlining is mine. The non-parallel dependent clauses are all his.)

As you may recall, Harris's ally Senator Heather Steans is my state senator, and I've had some past complaints about her and Rep. Harris. This story is useful because it illustrates how their political minds are wired.

In fairness to Harris and Steans, this district has a high concentration of senior citizens and pandering to seniors seems to be key to political success here. The current U.S. Representative, Jan Schakowsky, built her political career as a senior citizens advocate.

The late columnist Mike Royko proposed that the Latin phrase "Ubi Est Mea" ("where's mine?") should be the Illinois state motto. Many Illinois seniors are way too comfortable with that particular ethos of Illinois politics.

Unfortunately, the benefits to seniors in this proposal are illusory.

Rep. Harris is the only openly-gay member of the Illinois General Assembly and if he does not support same-sex marriage, I'm sure the vast majority of his gay constituents do. I support same-sex marriage. Same-sex marriage you can support on principle. Supporting civil unions always involves situational political considerations, since they are to marriage law normalization what medical marijuana is to drug law normalization.

One of the arguments for same-sex marriage and, by extension, civil unions is that life partners without legal status cannot access spousal benefits in Social Security and pensions. The simple argument in favor of civil unions in lieu of marriage has always been that they allow the redress of certain clear injustices without getting into the emotionally-loaded same-sex marriage argument.

Unfortunately, as civil unions have become more common, this use of them has been undercut in significant ways, probably most notably in 1996 by the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) which, by the way, was signed by President Bill Clinton.

DOMA defines marriage as the union between a man and a woman, and explicitly denies to same-sex couples marriage-based federal benefits. These include Social Security benefits, veterans' benefits, spousal benefits under qualified retirement plans, the unlimited estate and gift tax marital deduction, the ability to file income taxes as a married couple, and the ability to make split gifts as a married couple.

While DOMA makes civil unions useless for claiming federal benefits and privileges, they can still provide a number of benefits under state law, including the ability to receive state benefits, and the right to be involved in health care matters that normally are restricted to family.

HB1826 and SB2436 are the two pieces of civil union legislation pending in Illinois. They are unique in that they would provide for civil unions for both same-sex and opposite-sex couples. In all states that currently recognize civil unions, they are an option for same-sex couples only. The only rationale I have heard for allowing opposite sex couples in Illinois to opt for civil unions instead of marriage is the Social Security scam proposed by Rep. Harris.

The scam is also being promoted at CivilUnionsIllinois.org

If, in fact, Illinois does recognize civil unions between opposite-sex couples, how long do you think it will take for Social Security and every other affected entity to plug that loophole? DOMA defines marriage as the union between a man and a woman. Would it not then be reasonable to argue that DOMA effectively also defines marriage as any legally-recognized union between a man and a woman, regardless of its name?

Barack Obama, who Steans and Harris support for president, is on record as against same-sex marriage but for civil unions for same-sex couples. He also has said he supports allowing the states to legalize same-sex marriage if they want to, and to that end he opposed DOMA. (Symbolically, as he wasn't in a position to vote on it.) One can certainly imagine DOMA being repealed or substantially revised early in an Obama presidency especially if, as expected, Democrats control both houses of Congress. Assuming anyone falls for this silly proposition in the first place, how do you think heterosexual seniors who supported civil unions on this basis will feel when their little scam blows up on them?

Government and politics as practiced by Gov. Rod Blagojevich and his legislative supporters gets more surreal by the day.

Remembering Wrong.

I'm not sure what it says about the advertising campaign, or about me, that even as I was looking at various Jim Beam web sites while writing Thursday's post, I remembered the campaign theme wrong. The correct theme is "The Stuff Inside Matters Most," which has been around since 2004, not "It's What's Inside That Counts," as I posted on Thursday.

I suppose I could just have corrected Thursday's post, though some would say that's not in the true spirit of blogging. That doesn't bother me much, I'm not a big fan of unpolished writing, but my mistake got me thinking about how we remember things.

Obviously, "The Stuff Inside Matters Most" is a proprietary way of saying "It's What's Inside That Counts," which is the familiar aphorism. That's what I wrote Thursday. The fact that I conflated the two probably indicates that the campaign is effective, in that I not only understand the two phrases as having the same meaning, my brain actually considers them interchangeable.

When I looked at it again a little while ago, I realized it was wrong and started to look for a recent Jim Beam ad. Naturally, I couldn't find one, so I poked around on the web enough to satisfy myself that the theme has only and always been "the stuff inside," which is now being spun-off into the social media campaign.

Always interesting how the mind works, or doesn't.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Jim Beam Launches Social Media Campaign.

Jim Beam is doing something interesting to promote white label. It's called a social media campaign. It was explained to me that social media "refers to conversation and community in the online space." Okay, I get it. Interactive. Like a blog.

They don't want to call this a campaign. They prefer "movement."

Here's the gist of it:

A crusade has begun. Jim Beam®, the world's number one selling bourbon, is thinking outside of the bottle in an entirely unconventional way by starting a movement to recognize, support and celebrate true character. By investing their multi-million dollar marketing budget into the success of selected individuals and organizations that represent the "Stuff Inside", (www.thestuffinside.com) Jim Beam is turning conventional marketing on its head.

By all means, visit the web site. It is the most content-rich web site I have seen from any beverage brand, although I can't say I spend a lot of time looking at sites for beverages that aren't whiskey.

But a warning to all of my whiskey-enthusiast friends. There isn't hardly anything on it about whiskey.

Apparently, that's the point.

(Go to www.jimbeam.com for the whiskey part. The "Brotherhood of Bourbon" lives on too, as does Beam Racing. Maker's Mark, Knob Creek, and the Small Batch Collection all have their own sites. Jim Beam has many web sites.)

Is it truly unconventional? We used to call this integrated marketing. One of the things I love about marketing, after 35 years in the business, is that the basic principles and techniques don't change very much, but every few years everything gets renamed.

So I don't know how unconventional it is, but they are pulling it off much better than most.

I like the way they are using it to tie a lot of existing initiatives together, like their racing, music and comedy sponsorships, which they've been doing for years.

I also like that they let the "It's What's Inside That Counts" theme get well established before they introduced this double-meaning. They were patient enough to wait until just the right time to expand the meaning this way. That's very sophisticated branding. It's very hard for marketers these days to take the long view, even when the long view is part of the brand's positioning.

There is one, small, quibbly problem with the whole package, however. It's the fundamental claim that Beam whiskey hasn't changed since 1795, a span of 213 years. It's a great metaphor, a nice way of saying that their whiskey has been made by the same family for 213 years, using methods passed down from father to son (and the occasional uncle or cousin). All of that is absolutely true.

But taken literally in reference to the whiskey itself, it's problematic, since no whiskey sold today is like whiskey was 213 years ago, and you wouldn't want it to be. That goes for Beam whiskey and everybody else. Whiskey then wasn't aged, the stills were different, the alcohol content was different. As for the Jim Beam brand itself, it is a post-Prohibition creation, so less than 75 years old.

What would be a good, smart, sophisticated, pro-active way to make all that a positive? De-emphasize the theme's literal meaning and build up its application as a metaphor.

Color me impressed.

Friday, May 9, 2008

But Above All, Try Something.

A friend pointed me in the direction of Jack Kelly's piece today on Real Clear Politics entitled, "Obama Needs a History Lesson." Kelly found something in Barack Obama's Tuesday night speech "that is all the more remarkable for how little it has been remarked upon."

Here's what Kelly wrote:

In defending his stated intent to meet with America's enemies without preconditions, Sen. Obama said: "I trust the American people to understand that it is not weakness, but wisdom to talk not just to our friends, but to our enemies, like Roosevelt did, and Kennedy did, and Truman did."

That he made this statement, and that it passed without comment by the journalists covering his speech indicates either breathtaking ignorance of history on the part of both, or deceit.


The gist of what follows is that Roosevelt and Truman never talked to Germany or Japan, our WWII enemies. And if Obama meant the Soviet Union (as he obviously did), that's wrong because they were our ally at the time. No, really, that's what he wrote. Read it for yourself.

Then he wraps it up the way you knew he would, by comparing Obama to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and French premier Eduoard Daladier.

Kelly's article is little more than a nice riff. It's a nice excuse for a history lesson, but ridiculous beyond that. Obama's reference to Roosevelt, Truman and Kennedy talking to our enemies was as innocuous as it seemed.

Of course Obama was referring to those presidents having talked to the Soviet Union. Calling the Soviet Union our "ally" is only fair if you put it in context, which Kelly does not. The United States was hostile to the Soviet Union from the moment it came into being. The Jack Kellys of every decade of the 20th century told us the Soviet Union was our greatest enemy.

Kelly talks about Obama being historically-ignorant but makes an argument only someone truly ignorant of history would buy. Nice try, but no dice.

The United States can use its power in a lot of different ways. Withholding talks is one way to leverage it. Giving people a forum and, in effect, enough rope to hang themselves is another way. The real point, I think, is that a powerful nation can afford to be magnanimous. We don't always have to be the tough guy.

What has excited so many people about an Obama presidency is the possibility of trying something really different, daring to approach things in new ways, and letting our power translate itself into a different kind of courage and confidence.

It was Roosevelt, after all, who repudiated Hoover's inaction on the Depression saying, shortly after he took office, "It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something."

It was also Roosevelt who said:

"Human kindness has never weakened the stamina or softened the fiber of a free people. A nation does not have to be cruel to be tough."

Of course, one has to consider the policies of the current administration a colossal failure to want something so radically new, but that's the way I feel and millions of other people feel that way too.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Just Read John Kass.

There are some days when I want to write something but all I really need to say is, "just read John Kass."

This is one of those days.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

It's Not Race, Nor Religion, It's Politics.

I would think that any longtime church-goer would be rattled by the notion that he or she might be called to account for some nutty thing the pastor might have said from the pulpit some Sunday. Have you ever listened to a sermon and thought, "gee, I hope no one thinks I believe what he just said just because I'm sitting here." If you go to church, has such a thought ever crossed your mind? Exactly! It didn't cross Obama's mind either.

My golly, some of the things Monsignor Hebbler used to say about Protestants. I didn't understand a lot of them, but I'm sure they wouldn't look good on YouTube.

For that matter, if you go to church, can you remember what was taught last week? The week before? Especially when the sermon gets symbolic, how closely do you really pay attention?

None of this is racial. It has nothing to do with the Black Church or Liberation Theology. It's politics. It's what has been dubbed the politics of personal destruction. It is one of the practices Obama decries. The particular variety at work here is guilt by association. The trick is to concentrate all attention on the nefarious traits of the associate, not on the nature of the association. Explanations of the nature of the relationship are irrelevant. The inference, accepted as fact, is that knowing all about this bad other person tells us something crucial about the principal, in this case, Senator Obama, when in fact it may tell us nothing at all.

In 1995, I attended a law school class in which Bernardine Dohrn was a guest speaker. Does that mean I endorse everything she said that day? Does it mean I endorse everything she has ever said and done? How does that differ from what is being attempted with Obama? I say "being attempted" because I don't think it's changing any minds. The people stoking these fires oppose him for other reasons. Like I said, it's just politics.

And, as politics, it smacks of desperation. Is that all you've got? A nutty old preacher and two aging student radicals from 40 years ago? Please, here's a free one. Go back to Rezko. That's the interesting story. Of course, that's also a story of high-level bi-partisan looting of the public treasury. Why would we want to pay attention to that?

Remember 7th grade civics? That's the last time I believed that the way people ran for office was they stood up, gave a true account of what they believed and what they intended to do if elected, and then the voters chose the person whose ideas and proposals appealed to them the most. Obama seems to be doing exactly that. I say "seems" because I haven't consumed all of the Kool Aid yet, but what would be so bad about having a president who is young, idealistic, smart, sensible, articulate, well-educated, thoughtful, handsome, a good dancer, and not from privilege but from a modest and very diverse background?

Calling one of today's few major national political figures who is not from privilege an out-of-touch elitist is politics. Also irony and, quite possibly, parody.

But back to Jeremiah Wright. It is in the nature of symbolic speech for individuals to read it differently. You read the American flag one way, someone else reads it a different way. When you condemn that person, what are you really condemning them for? Not thinking like you? How has their different reading harmed you? Or has it benefited you by showing you a way to read the symbol that you hadn't considered, a way you may ultimately reject, but how has being exposed to another person's thought process, maybe part of that person's experience, an experience that is different from your own, harmed you?

By the same token, the meaning you attach to the words "God damn America" is personal. It may not be the meaning another person takes away or what the speaker intended. As I interpret it, all Wright was saying, in the context of a teaching and pastoring address to a voluntary audience, was that God may, in fact, have a harsher judgment in mind for America's behavior than a blessing.

Pat Robertson, among others, has expressed similar sentiments, that America deserves to be punished, not praised, for some of its actions. He would cite different reasons than Wright does, but it's the same idea. "Don't be so proud of yourself, America; you ain't all that."

I'm not saying I agree with the sentiment, I'm just asking what is so shocking or damning or dangerous about it, especially if all the real target of this did was sit in the room with a lot of other people while it was being said?